“I can’t take it anymore!” When conversations start like this, I perk up and listen closely. It’s critical to be an active listener as the teacher elaborates. The listening becomes about wading through frustrations and finding the source of the issue.
There’s a line during all of workshop at the electric pencil sharpener!
They can’t find their drafts the next day!
They just want to sit and sketch all workshop!
Everyone is always done! I’m done! I’m done!
The issue almost always boils down to routines. As we step into this conversation, it is important to tread lightly. I’ve learned the hard way that mentioning an issue with routines is offensive to some teachers. For many teachers, routines and procedures are Teaching 101. When suggesting there is a glitch with routines, some teachers think we are suggesting they are weak instructors.
I’m humbled when a teacher trusts me enough to accept or extend an invitation for us to work together. It is not for the weak to be vulnerable and choose to work alongside an instructional coach. Because of this, I’ve learned to angle my questions and responses in a manner that empowers teachers to reflect, consider, and solve the issues that crop up in writing workshop.
The conversation is always tricky when it circles around routines. Not only do many teachers believe that routine issues are rookie issues, but routines can be structured in many successful ways. The trick is to figure out how to structure them to work for an individual teacher and class.
If I gave you a magic wand, what would you want to change?
When it’s time to respond, I begin by affirming the frustration. Anyone would be ready to pull their hair out if an electric pencil sharpener roared during all of workshop. It is exasperating when kids lose their drafts. And I do feel like I’m not holding up my end of teaching writers when children sketch or sit because they’re “done” during workshop after workshop. I understand the frustration.
Then I ask one of my very favorite coaching questions: “If I gave you a magic wand, what is the one thing you would change?”
The question is usually met with thoughtful silence and a small, “I don’t know.”
“That’s okay; take some time to think about it. It’s not every day you get a magic wand,” I respond. I keep quiet, giving space for the teacher to think.
This question forces us to focus on priorities. When we’re feeling frustrated, it seems like everything is going wrong. For teachers in writing workshops, the knee-jerk reaction is to get rid of writing workshop and return to traditional writing instruction with grammar worksheets, teacher-directed writing assignments, and rows of silent students.
It doesn’t take long for the teacher to name the change.
I’d like students to find a place to work and stay there.
I’d like students to be able to find their drafts every day.
I’d like kids to stop scribbling and add some words.
I’d like kids to be able to know how to keep working instead of being done.
What do students need?
Once it’s been named, I point out that usually behavior stems from an unmet need. Then I ask, “What do students need to be able to do this?”
This opens the back door for a conversation about routines. The question puts the emphasis on the students’ needs and takes the spotlight off of classroom management. Together, we are able to discover possible routines to help make writing workshop a productive and enjoyable time.
What’s another possibility?
Since I don’t actually have a magic wand to wave, I try to steer our conversation into the realm of possibilities. I don’t want teachers to believe there is a single solution. It takes time to find routines that work for a classroom. Even for longtime workshop teachers, sometimes routines need to change with each new class.
How’s it going?
A successful writing workshop is dependent on strong routines. Strong routines come when teachers are intentional and thoughtful about meeting the needs of their student writers. Checking back with frustrated teachers is vital for their workshops to grow sturdy. The routine may not be working, and so the frustration level has increased. This might open a door for you to join the class and model or observe the routine. Perhaps other issues have cropped up and you’ll offer another magic wand to wave, beginning the process again. When we check back with teachers, we put into action our care for their success.